One Nation Under Hydra Part One: A Review of Secret Empire #1

They’re lining up the prisoners

And the guards are taking aim

I struggled with some demons

They were middle class and tame

I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim

You want it darker

We kill the flame

From “You Want It Darker” (2016) by Leonard Cohen

“Avengers Assemble!”

From Secret Empire #1, Rick Jones

I don’t envy Nick Spencer. There’s a tremendous amount riding on this series. His run on both Captain America titles have garnered decries and denunciations from alt-right and the far left sectors of fans. It does seem rather appropriate for the guy writing Captain America to be getting shot at from both sides. Outside of that, even among more level-headed, reasonable fans, there is a growing consensus regarding event fatigue. In that light, Marvel has announced that after Secret Empire their major events will go into hiatus for at least 18 months. Given all that, Spencer is in a position to tell an event story that can make the case for the importance of an event series. Where the events have real and lasting consequences on the characters and their world. And honestly, up front, Spencer, along with main event artist Steve McNiven, Jay Leisten, Matthew Wilson and Travis Lanham pull off just that.

The specter of the Cube hangs over this story, as one of the driving plot threads is Madame Hydra’s search for the Cosmic Cube to truly remake the world. And with the external reality of Marvel’s Generations just around the corner, speculative wanderings could make the ending of this event appear to be a foregone conclusion. Spencer is too good of a writer for that. He’s crafted an intricate story with a dozen moving parts, and several dozen characters; each with their own machinations, hopes, and dreams. While I do think the Cube plays a factor in the resolution of Secret Empire, if I were a betting man I would say that resolution will come bittersweet, with lingering questions and problems that will be ripe with future stories.

I don’t believe for a moment that Steve Rogers will escape what he’s gone through unscathed. Even if, in the end, he is restored (and not impaled on the Capitol steps), I don’t think the damage he has done through Hydra will be magically undone. And that potentially leaves Cap in a very fascinating position. One that I can’t remember him ever needing to be in, needing to seek redemption and re-earn the trust of not just the other heroes, but of the United States and the world. In The Lion in Winter (1968), the Anthony Hopkins character, Richard, famously says, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.” We know that Steve Rogers will fall. Hydra’s imperial rule over the United States cannot last. Even Doom, who is a god some days, cannot perfectly hold onto Latveria. But there’s compelling stories to be found in the fall, and particularly when a man of the caliber of Steve Rogers begins to climb the ladder of redemption, rung by rung.

With the zero issue and FCBD Special behind us, we’re now full swing into Secret Empire. At the conclusion of the FCBD special, Supreme Leader Rogers and the High Council of Hydra successfully defeated the remaining Avengers, and Steve proved himself worthy by lifting the mighty Mjölnir. It’s a resounding first round win for Hydra. Issue one makes the unexpected choice of doing a time jump, where we’re several months into Hydra’s reign over the United States. During the off panel months, Hydra has cemented its rule, its tendrils coiled around every aspect of daily life in America, while its influence reaches out, further and further.

The story begins in Greensboro, North Carolina. The leaves on the trees are brown and yellow, full of autumn. Jason McAllister is a student at the Daniel Whitehall Elementary and Middle school–home of the Krakens–and when we meet him he is being dropped off by his older brother, Brian. I love Matthew Wilson’s use of color in these opening pages, they really bring out a level of intimacy, as opposed to Morry Hollowell’s colors on the first Civil War series, which were done in a more cinematic style which suited the widescreen pacing of that story. Outside the McAllister’s car, the world is full of bright, Rockwellian colors, and the street outside the school is without litter. Inside the car, as Jason complains about a stolen lunchbox, the color scheme darkens to a soft, Blackboltian cobalt. foreshadowing a reveal soon to come. Perhaps they’re just in the shade of a tree, but I created a symbolic moment out of it.

The choice of using a school as our introduction to Hydra’s new world reveals how insidious and absolute Hydra’s rule is, and how completely complacent the average citizen has become. Using kids in particular, Spencer has crafted a scene that is unnervingly normal–even routine. Order is fragile. Clean streets are easily trashed. The pledge of allegiance has been simplified to “Hail Hydra,” and the duties of a good citizen are summed up in three, simple, easy-to-remember commands: Trust Authority. Punish Weakness. Report Threats. This is driven home by the sad, defeated eyes of Ms. Peters as she proselytizes the alternative facts of Hydra’s supposed secret history, forgotten because of an event called “The Great Illusion.” More and more this seems like Marvel’s Bioshock and I kinda love it.

No sense of irony or chill.

Oh, and I don’t care if he’s got a badass Hive shirt–rockin it like it’s nineties Metallica–that lunchbox-stealing, Marcus Festerman is a jerk! He outs Jason’s brother as a “freak” (which is fascist for Inhuman, I guess). Jason denies the accusation, and Ms. Peters encourages the class that there is nothing to these rumors and further discussion is best saved till after class. All the while, her face looking slightly scared and filled with a terrible, hopeless inevitability while a surveillance camera silently watches.

The inevitable happens when a Hydra squad comes to the McAllister residence (Where are the parents? Dead parents? Future superhero!) and cart him off to an Inhumans detention center. So, the Inhuman registration is a thing and if you decide not to register and are found out you’ll find yourself going on a mandatory and indefinite enhanced vacation. Not ideal.

I’ve got some lingering questions about the apparel of these Hydra agents. I’m a little surprised Steve would have approved their uniform design. They’re a little bit too Red Skull-y. Perhaps he delegated, probably to Arnim Zola, he seems like he might be a Skull loyalist, and felt the need for an aesthetic homage. I hope this isn’t the last we see of the McAllisters, particularly, Jason and his “I’m gonna give the right answer, even though it’s the wrong answer” attitude.

Spencer’s narration over the abduction is a metatextual indictment of the hype that often comes in the promotion of an event. The narration is of a young man named Rayshaun Lucas (first appearance: Captain America: Sam Wilson #18), who was inspired to enter the world of vigilante justice after the attack on Rage by the Americops, and Sam Wilson’s renunciation of the Captain America moniker. Currently, Rayshaun is in Las Vegas holding onto a flash drive containing the files of Doctor Erik Selvig. The drive, given to him over the dark web by Rick Jones, details exactly what Kobik did to Steve Roger’s history. He functions in this story as an audience surrogate as we are introduced, through him, to the heroes’ resistance movement, the Champions’ Underground.

I’ve mentioned before that Nick Spencer is one of the best writers of humor in comics (seriously, if you can find it–actually here’s a link–check out his Jimmy Olsen One-Shot. It’s one of them hidden gem comics). Another thing that makes this event, and the Cap series that led into it, so noteworthy, is that Spencer never forgets that people are complex. All of them. Even the baddies. For the heroes left: they’ll try to hold on to humor in a dire situation. They’ll fixate on the tiny things they can control. They will find time for romance. They’ll crash a Fantasticar. And they will take this downtime–after the defeat; before the comeback–to come to terms with some old demons.

When Captain America does make an appearance it’s to confront Krigorrath, a giant kaiju, who definitely was wishing he could have been in Monsters Unleashed. There’s an absolutism to Steve in this scene, he gives Krigorrath a choice: Leave, or die. This is not the world the kaiju once knew, this is a world protected by Hydra. Hydra rules through strength and order and will not tolerate the imposition of a monster’s invasion. The monster is slain by the Hydra approved Avengers: Thor Odinson, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Taskmaster, Black Ant, Otto Octavius the Superior Octopus and Deadpool. I think this line up makes a lotta sense. We’ve got Wanda and Vision who’ve been mentally compromised (sorry, guys, I know we’ve got this plot twist on regular rotation now, but hey! It’s nice to see you working together again). Black Ant and Otto are baddies. Taskmaster is a part time baddie, and Deadpool is the worst. And Odinson? He’s just there because of a hammer.

Operationally, the High Council is operating as an economically populist, authoritarian dictatorship, with Steve Rogers in the center trying to keep it as benign as possible. Doctor Faustus provides some much needed comedic relief as he attempts to explain that he thinks chemtrails are a thing. The Kraken (anyone else think he’s Poppa Rogers?) reveals that the X-Men got a one-up on the Inhumans and have their own sovereign nation, New Tian. Zola is a little too pleased with the success of the Inhuman detainment centers. And the entire Council expresses concern over the rising influence of the Underground in Las Vegas. This scene is handled very well, it shows that Steve’s resolve against the worse nature of the Council is waning, but holding for now. I love the composition of the panel where Steve asks Helmut for his input. Helmut, arms crossed, comes across as defensive on behalf of his long-time friend, being reluctant to offer criticism on how Steve has handled his role of Supreme Leader. The relaxation of formality when Steve addresses him is a quiet and human moment among terrible people. I don’t know if I’m a terrible person for really liking their friendship. I might just be a closeted Hydra sympathizer…my god Nick Spencer what have you done?!?

The stand out scene in this issue is the dinner meeting between Steve and Sharon Carter. It reminds me of some of the best Luthor and Lois exchanges. I think Steve Rogers keeps her around, not just because he loves her and wants to keep her safe, but because she’s the only person who will tell him the truth. On the Council, he is surrounded by sycophants, potential betrayers and monsters (a literal one in Hive) and he still needs counsel that is unvarnished. Sharon is that for Steve. She’s always has been that. I want more moments like this between them. It’s a solid plot device for Steve to have someone who is criticizing every decision he makes, someone who he needs to justify and explain his actions to in a way that he doesn’t need to with the Council. Someone who reminds him of what he once was to the world. She tells him that if there’s anything of the man she loved in him than he’d spare Rick Jones. It’s a save-him-save-yourself moment for Steve.

As the issue enters into its final pages, Steve visits Rick Jones in his holding facility. This scene is vital in explaining the moral quandary he constantly finds himself in as Supreme Leader. He still believes that all that he has done has been for the good of the world, and that if only Rick and Sharon–at the very least–could see that, then he, and them, could be spared a lot of pain. It’s an interesting choice to interpret Steve this way, as a vessel enacting a preordained path. It allows him to disassociate from his culpability. This separation is further encouraged when he meets Madame Hydra, sequestered in her chambers, engaging in a mystic conflict with Doctor Strange who is still trapped within the Darkforce. She tells Steve Rogers that none of this matters. Not the mutiny Steve can foresee happening within the High Council. Not the Underground in Las Vegas. None of it. All that matters is securing the Cosmic Cube.

This passage has been stuck in my head after my re-reads. Two worlds…hmmm.

It ends with Rick Jones’ execution by firing squad and Las Vegas being laid to waste by a fleet of Hydra Helicarriers.

This is an incredible beginning for Secret Empire, it delivers on all the build up in Captain America: Steve Rogers. I’m sure there’s going to be some out there that will be intent on disliking it no matter what, but Spencer is doing some of the best work in his career on this title. I think the future is bright for this kid! It’s nuanced, it’s smart, it’s witty and it’s still, incredibly human. Exploring the threshold of acceptance that a country like the United States can have for an authoritarian, zero-tolerance government as long as it keeps its citizens safe, medicated, educated and employed is appropriately timed and hopefully not prophetic. Then again, the most powerful narratives in human history are prophetic in nature, for better or worse. The art immerses you with incredible line-work by McNiven and Leisten. The colors by Wilson can be soft and idyllic as in the opening pages, and then rich and warm hued, as in Madame Hydra’s chamber. I really can’t think of the last Marvel event where the stakes felt this high. And even though the Cosmic Cube is still out there, I suspect that in the hands of a writer like Nick Spencer, it won’t be a mere deus ex machina.

Until next time: Good night, good luck and Hail Hydra.

PS: Carol Danvers is still in space along with anyone else who could do something about all this. Well done, Supreme Leader.

PPS: So…Rick Jones? LMD or the return of Captain Mar-Vell?

“Secret Empire” #1 is written by Nick Spencer, illustrated by Steve McNiven, inked by Jay Leisten, colored by Matthew Wilson and lettered by VC’s Travis Lanham with cover art by Mark Brooks. It’s published by Marvel Comics and is currently on sale and available now at your friendly neighborhood comic store.

  • neilthatsmyname

    Guess who wasn’t going to read Secret Empire? … Me… Guess who is now going to read Secret Empire.. Me!!!